Of all the personal attacks on the Bidens during the acrimonious US election season, the one that surprised Jill Biden the most was the attention on her education.
Of all the personal attacks on the Bidens during the acrimonious US election season – from Joe’s gaffes and hair-sniffing to his son Hunter’s dodgy business dealings – the one that surprised Jill Biden the most was the attention on her educational credentials. America’s first lady spent the initial 13 years of her career teaching English in secondary schools and the past 27 years, including all eight while her husband was vice-president, at community colleges that offer two-year basic courses. Along the way she earned a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education, and likes to be addressed as “Dr B”.
“Madame First Lady, Mrs Biden, Jill, kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter,” began a broadside in The Wall Street Journal opinion pages by an 83-year-old former academic that quickly went viral in mid-December. “Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr’ before your name? ‘Dr Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic… A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.”
The article coaxed a small army of likemindedly wise men into a full cavalry charge. No matter that her qualifications marked a rather stark contrast to Melania Trump, who was caught lying about having a degree in architecture from the University of Ljubljana (an institution she left after one year to pursue a modelling career). Someone had finally pinned a bullseye on the back of Saint Jill. National Review headlined critic Kyle Smith’s takedown “Jill Biden’s doctorate is garbage because her dissertation is garbage”, and contained the memorable assessment that “as for Biden, she has spent a lot of time teaching remedial English to slow learners in community colleges. Which is like being a rock musician who’s in a bar band that plays covers… in assisted-living facilities.”
Newsflash, gentlemen. Jill Biden won’t be changing her ways to suit the conservative attack media. “It was such a surprise,” she told talk-show host Stephen Colbert shortly after. “It was really the tone of it… One of the things I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I worked so hard for it.” Jill Biden’s 2006 dissertation, Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs, is no page-turner, but it is at least an earnest assessment of a subject she clearly feels strongly about: the one-in-three dropout rate on the bottom rung of the adult education ladder.
Her allies sprang to her defence. Michelle Obama wrote on Instagram, “We’re all seeing what also happens to so many professional women, whether their titles are Dr, Ms, Mrs or even First Lady: all too often, our accomplishments are met with scepticism, even derision. We’re doubted by those who choose the weakness of ridicule over the strength of respect.”
There’s something about Jill Biden, who looks naturally younger than her 69 years without any indication of the facial and follicle enhancement exhibited by her 78-year-old husband, that seems to excite curmudgeonly commentators. John Cleese (81) ventured this supportive tweet: “I think it’s an encouraging sign that the next first lady will be a PhD with two master’s degrees, rather than a model. It says a lot about their husbands, too.”
Jill was accused of trading off the Biden name to get her doctorate (her dissertation was signed off by three senior academics at the local University of Delaware); gauchely flaunting a qualification known as “something of a joke in the academic world” (a matter of opinion – the EdD is widely seen as an applied doctorate compared with the more theoretical PhD); and obtaining it “to rebuild her amour propre” to shield herself from insecurities (true, but so what?). She made no secret of her motivations in her autobiography Where the Light Enters, published in 2019, where she freely admitted: “Joe used to joke that I did it because I was tired of our mail being addressed to ‘Senator and Mrs Biden’. And it’s true, I did hate being called Mrs Biden – that’s Joe’s mum’s name, not mine.” Later in the book she added, “I was grateful to be second lady [the wife of the vice-president]. It was an incredible honour. But the role I have always felt most at home in is being ‘Dr B’ – working with first-generation college students, teaching them to write essays that would help them get into four-year colleges.”
She will break new ground by becoming the first first lady with a full-time job by continuing at Northern Virginia Community College. The ritual of teaching is what keeps Jill sane – and was especially important in her early turbulent years following a failed first marriage, when she fell for an eligible young widower with presidential ambitions as well as two boys and a protective clan that many would find stifling.
She was born Jill Tracy Jacobs in Hammonton, New Jersey, and brought up in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, both small-town communities in the orbit of Philadelphia near America’s eastern coast. She is the eldest of five girls. Her father, Donald, was a bank clerk from a working-class family whose own Italian grandfather changed his name from Giacoppa to Jacobs upon arrival at Ellis Island. Her mother, Bonny Jean Godfrey, had hard-to-please college-educated parents who failed to dissuade their daughter from marrying down. Her parents’ elopement and rock-solid marriage inspired romantic dreams in young Jill and she dived headfirst into marriage at 18, six months after meeting Bill Stevenson on a beach in the summer of 1969. “I had found my Prince Charming and I was sure it would last for ever,” she wrote. The marriage unravelled in the early ’70s, but their versions of the break-up differ dramatically.
Stevenson was politically active and donated to Joe Biden’s longshot election campaign in Delaware in 1972 when, against all the odds, the 29-year-old Democrat unseated a two-term Republican to become the youngest member of the US Senate. Jill went with Stevenson to the celebration party at the fancy Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington, where she vividly remembers greeting the new senator’s wife, Neilia, also a teacher, with a congratulatory handshake. “You could see how happy she was – happy and incredibly proud,” Jill recalled later. She was struck by the “picturesque” Biden family with their three “adorable” little kids. She insists she did not meet Joe at the party nor any time before their first blind date in 1975. But he was in her thoughts just a month later, on December 18, 1972, when the local Delaware radio station broke terrible news. Neilia and the Bidens’ 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were dead, killed in a car accident while collecting their Christmas tree. The two boys, Beau and Hunter, had serious injuries. “That cold December evening, life truly stopped for a moment, and I prayed for the Biden family,” Jill wrote. “It was the only thing I could think to do.”
By mid-1974 she had drifted apart from Stevenson and their marriage was over. In March 1975, she says, she received a call out of the blue from Joe Biden. Her first words to her future husband were, “How did you get this number?” Joe said his younger brother Frank gave it to him. As a favour for a friend, Jill had posed for an advertisement displayed at Wilmington airport, and it had caught Joe’s eye. Frank knew her from university. “I just got back into town and was wondering, are you free tonight?” Joe asked. Jill says he persuaded her to break off an arranged date and took her to the cinema to see A Man and a Woman, a French film that was eerily appropriate because it focuses on a widow and a widower whose romance is complicated by feelings for their deceased spouses. The film was actually released in the US in 1968, seven years earlier, but this is just a minor wrinkle in the tale compared with her ex-husband’s version of events.
Bill Stevenson dates Jill’s first encounter with Joe back to 1972. “We got married in ’70; I introduced Joe to Jill in ’72. Right before the election in ’72 Jill, Joe, Neilia and I were in his kitchen. How do you forget that?” he told CBS in September 2020. Stevenson says he first suspected something was up when Jill declined to go with him to meet Bruce Springsteen, who was booked to appear at his bar. “She said, ‘Joe asked me to keep an eye on the boys.’ And I just thought in the back of my mind, ‘Hmm,’ ” Stevenson said.
A short while later, Stevenson says that a man came into his bar demanding damages for a car shunt that involved Jill. “He looks at me and he says, ‘Oh, she wasn’t driving.’ I said, ‘Her beloved Corvette, she wasn’t driving it?’ He goes, ‘Senator Biden was driving it.’ And I went, ‘What?’” Stevenson said he confronted Jill but, “She didn’t say anything… she just looked at me. I said, ‘You gotta go. You gotta go get your own place.’ ” The Bidens reject Stevenson’s account, which he has been seeking to publish as part of an autobiography. Stevenson, a Trump voter, insisted he had not broken his long silence during the election campaign for political reasons. “I have no hard feelings about Joe, Jill, the affair. It means nothing to me now.”
The key episodes of the Bidens’ love story have been polished over the decades: the blind date; a cute tale of Joe’s young boys cornering him one morning to demand, “When are we getting married?”; and then Joe’s five proposals over the course of “almost two years”, according to Jill’s book. (When Joe Biden gave his local paper, the Wilmington News Journal, an interview in July 1977, the blind date was his brother’s idea: “Frank popped up that he knew this girl he had met at university, so why didn’t I call her?” and there was no mention of four rejections following the boys’ question “a couple of months” before their wedding.) What seems clear beneath the mythology is that by the time Jill’s divorce came through in May 1975, at the tender age of 23, she was going steady with 32-year-old Senator Joe Biden, but was racked with feelings of insecurity following her first failed marriage, and this made her wary. Continuing to pursue her career as a teacher was central to repairing her self-esteem.
Missing from her book is a detail she revealed in a 1987 Washington Post interview: how Joe’s brothers, Jimmy and Frank, took her to dinner when she eventually agreed to marry Joe to explain the family’s expectations. “They told me it was a dream of this family that Joe would be president and did I have any problem with that,” Jill told the paper. Asked about this incident later by PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service), she added, “They were letting me in on this and kind of warning me that if I was going to marry him that this was part of the plan… It was kind of surreal. But I kind of brushed it off. It didn’t really faze me, because it just didn’t seem possible at that moment.”
Dating Joe Biden brought other challenges, notleast the other women in his life: a redoubtable Irish-American mother, his devoted sister and his deceased wife. Just a few weeks into their relationship, he wanted her to meet Valerie, his younger sister, who managed Joe’s Senate campaign and moved in to help take care of the boys following Neilia’s death. Jill quickly realised that nothing much happened in Joe’s life without Val’s say-so: “I knew that her approval could make or break my standing.” She passed the test over a lunch of tuna sandwiches and now says that Val is one of her closest friends. In Jill’s telling, the mother-in-law melted in gratitude “for making my son believe he could love again”.
The trickiest relationship to navigate was the one she had the least control over. “It was not lost on me that I was living a love story intended for someone else,” she wrote in the most candid section of her memoir. “My parents had built their lives together from the beginning, but I had inherited a family that another woman had started.” After their marriage in 1977, her new life involved taking the boys with Joe on summer trips to see their maternal grandparents in upstate New York, acutely conscious that she was around the same age as Neilia when they last saw her. It was the arrival in 1981 of a daughter, Ashley, that she says made the family complete.
The boys also helped her ease into her new role, naming her “Mum” in contrast to the “Mummy” they lost. Jill only ever calls them her children. When People magazine came to write about the newlyweds in 1977, its reporter asked eight-year-old Beau about his stepmum. He replied, “We don’t have a stepmum.” Not wanting to argue with the youngster, the magazine called Biden’s press secretary afterwards. Hadn’t the boys’ mother died? Just as Jill and the boys would do many times over the years, the press secretary corrected the journalist, “We don’t say ‘step’.” The memory of those battles for self-definition must have come flooding back during the teacup-storm over calling herself Dr B.
Becoming mum to the boys was to mark both the highest and lowest points of her journey as a Biden. Jill suffered a mother’s grief at the loss of Beau, who died in 2015 aged 46 from brain cancer, the second great tragedy of her husband’s life. The second night of the Democrats’ virtual convention last August focused on Jill, who drew on heartbreak to underline a theme of the Biden campaign: “How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked. “The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding, and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith.”
While Jill will use her role at the White House toresume the charitable work on cancer and supporting military families she began as second lady with Michelle Obama, her most important task will surely be her support for the oldest president in US history. The critics already detect signs of cognitive decline in Joe’s trademark verbal muddles. He rarely schedules events early in the day and seldom takes many questions from journalists. His nominee for White House chief-of-staff, Ron Klain, told The Washington Post during the campaign that Jill was their “critical asset”. He added: “She is, next to his sister, his most trusted adviser. She has a good feel for what works and does not work for him, and does a great job of keeping spirits up.”
Moe Vela, who worked for Biden when he was vice-president, saw their relationship up close. “On the first Valentine’s Day in the White House, she taped red paper hearts all over the vice-president’s office window in the West Wing – that’s who she is. One time we were on Air Force Two [the vice-presidential plane] and she said, ‘Don’t say anything,’ and climbed into the overhead bin. And when the vice-president got on we all had to say, ‘Dr Biden’s not here yet,’ and he opens up the bin and she surprises him. She’s great fun.”
Vela first came into contact with “Dr B” when it fell to him to negotiate with the Secret Service in 2008 after the new second lady refused to allow her protection agents into her college classroom. “She was adamant that they sit outside the door. It was very important to her that they not distract or intimidate the students,” he recalled. “It told me a lot about her authenticity. She always had this little canvas bag over her shoulder with stacks of papers that she was constantly grading.” Jill mixed this dedication to her educational career with devotion to Joe, he said. What’s her influence on the president? “[She’s] his best friend, his soulmate.”
Jill recently argued that the plagiarism of a speech by former UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock that led Joe to end his first run for president in 1987 was “no fault of his own” because “he was reading a speech that someone had written for him”. When a priest showed up to give her husband the last rites in 1988, as he lay in hospital after the first of his two aneurysms, Jill shooed him away. Early last year when several women accused Joe of touching them inappropriately, it was Jill who went on ABC’s Good Morning America to lead the response, saying: “I think what you don’t realise is how many people approach Joe, men and women, looking for comfort or empathy. But going forward, I think he’s gonna have to judge – be a better judge – of when people approach him, how he’s going to react. That he maybe shouldn’t approach them.” She has expended less of her political capital publicly defending Hunter Biden, the surviving son, who has struggled with addiction and faced intense scrutiny from opponents trying to link Joe with Hunter’s business deals. But during the height of allegations in October it was Jill who was deployed on daytime TV to dampen the frenzy. “As a mother I don’t like to see my son attacked, and certainly I don’t like to see my husband attacked, but to me, these are distractions,” she told ABC, glossing over the details. “The American people don’t want to hear these smears against my family. The American people are struggling right now.”
Twice on the campaign trail last year Jill intervened to block protesters seeking to storm the stage where her husband was speaking, and she was also seen on camera pulling Joe back from a group of reporters to maintain social distancing. Jill’s protective instinct extended to misgivings over the choice of Kamala Harris as running mate, having been wounded by the California senator’s stinging attack on Joe when they were still rivals for the nomination during the first Democratic debate. The implication of racism raised by Harris hurt all the more because the Bidens had welcomed her into the fold after she befriended Beau while both were state attorneys-general. Joe was too quick to forgive, in the view of both Val and Jill, who has said that her husband was “incapable of holding a grudge. But that means I end up being the holder of the grudges. I remember every slight committed against the people I love. I can forgive, sure, but I don’t believe in rewarding bad behaviour.”
The Bidens often make joint appearances – in contrast to the Trumps – but one reason she is keen to be at his side may be defensive. In a joint video interview in October he began an answer by saying, “What kind of a country are we going to be? Four more years of George…” causing Jill to prompt “Trump” out of the side of her mouth. Joe recovered. In December’s Stephen Colbert interview, when he asked Joe whether he would like to take physical revenge on those who ridiculed his wife’s doctorate, the president-elect began to say, “The answer is…” Jill quickly stepped in with, “No – the answer’s no.” And Joe agreed.
Just as important as the public support are the private moments. “Life is difficult and if you sit around waiting for fun to show up, you’ll find yourself going without it more often than not,” she has said. “If I can make Joe laugh by something as silly as hiding under the bed and popping out when the lights are off, why not?”